Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Church fatally overplayed hand in 1983 abortion poll

OPINION: What is the politest way to address a Catholic bishop?

This was one of the questions taoiseach Charles Haughey and senior civil servants were grappling with in 1982, as shown by State papers released this week.

The file on their deliberations provides a window onto Ireland 30 years ago, with one senior official recommending “My dear Lord Bishop” rather than plain old “Dear Bishop”. 

Another official felt this “formal approach . . . has been overtaken by more informal usage”.

Haughey himself was undecided on this point but a memo notes that he “agreed generally with the more intimate form of signing his name on a letter to a member of the hierarchy without the word “Taoiseach” typed under it.

It’s a long way from the Pat Rabbitte school of communications.

Today, politicians question whether churchmen have a right to stick their nose into State affairs. This would have been incomprehensible, or simply impractical, 30 years ago, given the sheer breadth of the Catholic Church’s involvement in Irish society.

From today’s vantage point such “interference” is generally perceived as a negative, but the positives are highlighted too in the documents. 

In a dark period for the North, Catholic priests working in nationalist, no-go areas were key intermediaries, trying to negotiate their constituency away from extreme positions. 

Even Margaret Thatcher gave them credit. 

When Rev Ian Paisley started badmouthing the Catholic Church at a meeting in June 1981, in the midst of the hunger strikes, the British prime minister commended the bishops for their bravery.

The church’s multifaceted role in education, community activism and social affairs was already well documented, but what shines through the files is the level of respect the church then received at official level and in the community at large. 

The department of foreign affairs dossier on the developing world, for example, consisted almost entirely of reports from priests and nuns in the missions.

A file on women’s equality saw feminists mobilised over the dropping of Sr Stanislaus Kennedy from a health board in July 1982. When the same activists proposed a “national women’s talent bank”, one of the first names put forward was a nun from Co Clare.

But the State papers also shine a light on abuses of power – small but insidious ones. Like when archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan used an Easter meeting with Haughey to request (successfully, as it turned out) that a number of bills owing to government departments – including Posts and Telegraphs – be cancelled, and that pressure be put on a couple of State agencies to “reduce their accounts”. 

(You’d like to see Diarmuid Martin try that one with the Minister for Communications.)

Or when a Catholic-run school in Co Mayo bombarded its local TD Enda Kenny with letters from pupils demanding a “pro-life” referendum – even though the students were too young to vote themselves. The wording on each letter was so similar it had all the hallmarks of a homework exercise.

This was, of course, part of a bigger show of strength by the Irish church. The “pro-life” amendment campaign was largely driven by lay Catholics, but would not have got off the ground without the hierarchy’s approval.

Many people who are strongly opposed to abortion admit today the campaign was ill-conceived. More broadly, it can be seen as the Irish Catholic Church – buoyant after the recent visit of Pope John Paul II – fatally overplaying its hand.

All the evidence points to the fact that both Haughey and Garret FitzGerald were staunchly anti-abortion, as were their parties, and the issue mattered politically only to the extent to which it could be used as a stick to beat the other. 

But the bitter nature of the 1983 referendum campaign, and the way “the abortion issue” contaminated the general elections surrounding it, made politicians a lot warier of church involvement in politics thereafter.

In another way, 1982 could be seen as a fatal turning point for the church because Catholic morality, in the remainder of that decade, became increasingly associated with a particular type of sexual morality.

The files shed some light on that evolution – as much of the correspondence on the abortion issue to the Department of the Taoiseach carried a hysterical tone, typically conveying sweeping allegations and innuendo. 

All were dealt with reverentially – backbench TD Enda Kenny dutifully forwarded his mailbag to the highest office in the land – but whether that would happen today is debatable.

What else do the papers tell us about 1982? Money was scarce (like today), the State was deep in debt (ditto) and we were super-sensitive about our image overseas (nothing changes).

In a year of high political intrigue, there was little recorded about phone-tapping or financial skulduggery – but that was somewhat inevitable. 

The paper trail that was left behind hints nonetheless at a political system based on wheeling and dealing, and a flexible moral code.

Viewed against the backdrop of more recent political events, including the various tribunals, the overwhelming impression from the papers is of a Republic with no particular sense of direction.

One rare instance of forward thinking from that era – relating to the “pro-life” amendment – was the decision of FitzGerald’s government to publish the advice of its attorney general Peter Sutherland in advance of the 1983 referendum. This was an unprecedented initiative, and whether or not you agreed with his opinion (he was against the amendment), its availability helped to inform public debate.

The electorate would have been better informed had it been able to compare Sutherland’s opinion to the quality of advice offered by the two other attorneys general who worked on the amendment. Instead, we can read this advice only 30 years later – but why?

There is a strong case for allowing greater public scrutiny of the advice of the Office of the Attorney General, especially in the case of referendums but perhaps also for other important matters of public policy. 

Labour should be reminded of its pre-election pledge for greater transparency in this area, saying in its manifesto it “will publish the attorney general’s advice to government when it is appropriate to do so”.

Thirty years after this was first trialled, it is appropriate to let in further light.

JOE HUMPHREYS is an Irish Times journalist covering the 1982 State papers released this week

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